PG&E shut-off plan to prevent fires troubles vulnerable customers

In Eddie Lopez’s Concord home, electricity does far more than keep the lights on: It powers life-sustaining machinery that his daughter depends on every day.

Born with cerebral palsy that left her unable to walk, Lopez’s daughter, Massiel, experienced a compounding of her disability about six years ago when she developed complications from pneumonia. The 24-year-old now relies on the constant assistance of a breathing machine, along with a motorized wheelchair and a machine that feeds her critical nutrients overnight, among other equipment.

All of it needs electricity. And with the next wildfire season rapidly approaching, all of it could be incapacitated if Pacific Gas and Electric Co. decides to turn the power off.

The prospect makes Lopez “very worried,” he said. Massiel’s breathing machine can only last an hour or two on a backup battery.

“If there’s no power, there’s no ventilator for her,” Lopez said. “I guess the best thing we can do is just take her to an emergency room.”

PG&E has dramatically expanded its plans for forced power outages when extremely dry and windy weather exacerbates the possibility that its electric equipment could spark a devastating fire. When PG&E first implemented shut-offs last year, the program only applied to as many as 570,000 customers; now that’s 5.4 million — the entirety of the utility’s electric customer accounts.

The change stems from PG&E’s expansion of its shut-off program scope to include higher-voltage transmission lines like the one suspected of involvement in the start of last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history. Less than three months after that inferno, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection, citing potentially $30 billion in liabilities after two seasons of historic Northern California wildfires.

PG&E decided against turning off power in the area ahead of the Camp Fire, but the 115,000-volt transmission line at the fire’s Butte County origin point would have stayed energized anyway, according to PG&E’s policies at the time.

Transmission lines are like freeways for electrons, carrying electricity over large distances and then transferring it to cities and neighborhoods via substations and distribution lines. So if PG&E turns off a higher-voltage transmission line because of wildfire danger, it could have a “cascading effect” on numerous customers, even those in areas far removed from the conditions that prompted the outage, the company warned in a recent regulatory filing.

And disabled, electricity-dependent people like Lopez’s daughter are among the most vulnerable when the lights go out.

“There might be many other cases similar to us,” Lopez said. “We’re not the only family with this type of dependency on power because of the (medical) equipment.”

Lopez’s home is one of about 180,000 PG&E customers enrolled in the utility’s assistance program for people who need extra energy due to a medical condition. If and when PG&E decides to cut power in a certain area, it will strive to provide all customers two days’ notice, and will conduct additional outreach to those enrolled in the assistance program, according to the utility.

PG&E knows the list of people with extra energy needs — known as medical baseline customers — doesn’t include every vulnerable resident, said Aaron Johnson, the PG&E electric operations vice president who oversees the shut-off program. But for now, it’s “the best proxy we have,” he said.

The utility is preparing to raise public awareness about its planned outages. All electricity customers should receive a letter about the program later this month, and PG&E will later hold community meetings throughout its service territory.

The utility is also planning to roll out a “pretty significant advertising campaign,” Johnson said. Exercises and workshops with county emergency officials are also on the agenda, he said.

“This is a really difficult decision, and it’s something that we know we have to do thoughtfully, given the risks on both sides,” Johnson said. “Customers just need to be prepared, just like they would for any other potential emergency situation or natural disaster, which is an unfortunate part of life here in California.”

Officials at the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E’s primary regulator, recently said the utility should explore whether some other wildfire-prevention measures, including disabling devices that restart power lines, could lessen the need for forced power outages.

Regulators are also crafting new statewide standards for how utilities shut off electricity during catastrophic wildfire conditions.

Proposed guidelines recently released by Commission President Michael Picker say the forced outages must be a “measure of last resort” for investor-owned electric utilities. The guidelines would have utilities develop communication strategies that can reach someone “no matter where the customer is located and deliver messaging in an understandable manner,” and make the companies integrate their warning systems with government agencies that alert the public, along with other requirements.

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said his consumer group was “very encouraged” by the commission’s proposal, especially its emphasis on power shut-offs as a last-ditch measure.

Toney called PG&E’s wildfire prevention plan “terrible.”

“The fact that they want the power shut-offs to be such a major part of their wildfire management can cause safety problems of its own, in terms of the risk to households with people who are dependent on breathing machines, various machines they depend on for their health,” he said.

PG&E put its shut-off program in place last year, in the wake of the 2017 Wine Country wildfires, many of which were blamed on the utility’s equipment.

In the vanguard of power shut-offs was another utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, which created its program after a series of devastating 2007 wildfires.

In October, PG&E turned off electricity for thousands of customers in the North Bay and some nearby areas, in its first planned outage to lessen wildfire risk. The incident prompted significant blowback, as residents and local government leaders faulted PG&E for poor communication and failure to adequately mitigate the disruptive impact.

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin criticized the October shut-off in his region, and he said he retains his concerns going into the next wildfire season. Martin said he wants to keep his community safe from fires but the shut-offs can “create a whole other disaster” for residents.

In one of California’s most fire-prone and poorest counties, many people can’t afford good backup measures, Martin said.

“It’s not like everybody in Lake County can go out and buy a generator,” he said. “If this happens right at the first of the month when people are getting their checks and and filling up their refrigerators, and all of a sudden the power goes out for three, five, seven days, they’re going to be without food … It’s going to create a tremendous impact on us.”

Power shut-offs are just one aspect of PG&E’s fire-prevention work. The utility is ramping up its tree trimming, strengthening its power lines and poles and installing cameras and weather stations as well.

Johnson, the PG&E executive, said the utility also plans to install hundreds of devices that will allow it to more closely limit the parts of its electric system it wants to shut down.

Intentional blackouts are a tool PG&E wants to reserve for “the most extreme weather conditions when it is not safe to operate the electrical system,” Johnson said. He would not estimate how often PG&E might choose to put some of its customers in the dark this year, but said it’s “quite likely” shut-offs will happen multiple times this season given the extreme wildfire danger California has seen in recent years.